January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

”Gears of War”: An instant classic!

(Microsoft; Xbox 360; Mature)
We’ll just come out and say it: Gears of War is better than Halo. And we say this with all due respect to Microsoft’s legendary first-person shooter. Halo, after all, put the original Xbox on the map, and Halo 2 was so popular that it raked in more money in its first three days on store shelves than any movie did over the same opening weekend. But the new Halo game on the vastly more powerful Xbox 360 won’t be out until sometime next year. This leaves Gears of War as Microsoft’s go-to tentpole blockbuster for the holidays, one that bears the awesome burden of not only selling Xbox 360s in the wake of the mega-hyped debuts of the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3, but also serving as a ”consolation prize” for fans who expected to be playing the now-tardy Halo 3.

That said, GoW shouldn’t have to play understudy to any game: It’s a fantastic-looking, riveting, fire-first-ask-questions-never third-person shooter that manages to show you things that you’ve never seen before on a console. And even as the game thrusts you into the role of a burly, take-charge soldier trying to fend off a massive alien invasion, it’s not just the spectacular eye candy that left us panting — and wanting more. In fact, Gears‘ crowning achievement is its game-play mechanics, specifically the way you’re able to take cover from an incoming barrage of bullets. You won’t get very far without ducking behind a boulder, burnt-out car, or wall, then carefully rising out of your defensive position to return fire. Pulling off these moves is fairly intuitive — a mere press of a button while approaching said cover — and it adds another layer to a game genre that usually doesn’t pay dividends for merely staying out of harm’s way.

GoW also features an impressive, tension-building orchestral soundtrack and some wicked weaponry, such as your character’s bread-and-butter firearm: an assault rifle with a chainsaw (that’s right, a chainsaw) mounted underneath the gun barrel. Without a doubt, Halo 3 now has a very tough act to follow and — who knows? — in an act of role-reversal, it could very well be the consolation prize people play to pass the time until Gears of War 2. Microsoft, we’re sure, probably won’t mind this sibling rivalry. AGary Eng Walk

(RedOctane; PS 2; Everyone)
When the original Guitar Hero took the stage, it was an instant hit. Its irresistible hook, a guitar-shaped game controller that substituted color-coded buttons for strings and frets, turned a great idea into a fun one, even if you didn’t know a hammer-on from a pull-off. Guitar Hero II includes a new ax to grind (the ’06 version is fire-engine red) and even more challenging tunes (both old acts like the Rolling Stones and new ones like Wolfmother get airplay) to shred.

Maybe too challenging: GHII starts off harmlessly enough, but by the time you try to keep up with the later levels’ intricate three-button chords, anyone without freakishly agile fingers and lots of perseverance will want to smash their guitar (and not as an homage to Jimi Hendrix). To its credit, the game offers help in the form of a customizable practice mode in which you can replay any part of any song at any speed, without the fear of crowd jeers or low scores. If practice still doesn’t improve your chops, you can cue up GHII‘s best addition, a co-op mode that lets you pass off lead guitar duties to a buddy while you play the bass line. Even for second-stringers, GHII can still be finger-lickin’ good. A-GEW

(EA; Xbox 360, PS2, Xbox, GC, PC; Everyone)
A year after Need for Speed made its next-generation debut on the Xbox 360, this latest installment of EA’s Fast and the Furious-style franchise has you racing cars under the cover of darkness. The game also offers an unparalleled ability to customize your rides — exotics, muscles, and tuners. A marvelous new feature called ”AutoSculpt” is something the Pimp My Ride guys might have in a hundred years: Metal becomes Silly Putty in your hands as you tweak every curve of your spoiler or rims.

As for the core racing experience on the streets of Palmont City, the gameplay remains largely unchanged from last year’s Most Wanted. (EA, however, did drop drag racing in favor of drifting.) The most noticeable enhancement is the addition of controllable ”wingmen,” a squad of friendly cars that can find shortcuts or even block traffic with the click of a button. It’s a solid concept that never quite hits second gear: Races move at such a fast clip that spending time focusing on a wingman ensures that you’ll end up in a head-on collision at 100-plus miles an hour. (Uh-oh, better get Maaco!)

While Carbon crosses the finish line, it still lacks the destructive-firepower of a racer like the last version of Burnout, in which the environment is an integral part of the gameplay. It’s a solid racing game that could have used some next-gen boost. BGeoff Keighley

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